The Torchbearer: Howard W. Coles (November 12, 1903-December 10, 1996), Part 2

The previous blog post noted that Howard Coles first gained influence in Rochester through his roles as editor and publisher of The Frederick Douglass Voice newspaper. Coles developed his skills as a journalist through YMCA classes he took in New York City and got the idea to begin his own newspaper while working for the Chicago Defender.

By 1934 his dream was a reality. He started his Rochester-based paper by cashing in a $2,800 life insurance policy and obtaining funding from members of the city’s premier families, including Georgiana Farr Sibley (May 30, 1887- June 10, 1980). While the The Frederick Douglass Voice was published continually for 62 years, it was never entirely self-sustaining, such that Coles had to rely on the series of occupations mentioned in the previous blog post.

Despite the newspaper’s precarious financial position, it was on the forefront of advocacy for the African American community. The Voice featured articles about black history at a time when the field was not adequately represented in school curriculum and popular media. Coles’ paper agitated for greater employment opportunities for African Americans in Rochester, advocating for more black firefighters, social workers, teachers, and even library workers. The headline of the first issue proclaimed: “No Negroes as Jurors,” questioning why the legal community did not impanel blacks in jury trials.

The Voice pushed for food cooperatives in black neighborhoods, which lacked many of the larger grocery chains available in more affluent areas. And the newspaper was a forceful opponent, even then, of police brutality. Unfortunately, many of the issues the newspaper sought to address are still with us.


Howard W. Coles at the newspaper.
From the Howard W. Coles Collection,
Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester, New York.

Coles expressed his activism beyond the pages of his newspaper. In the fall of 1937, a married couple attempted to rent an apartment on Clarissa Street and were refused on the basis of race. As a result, the following year Coles commissioned the first housing survey documenting prejudice faced by black families and the substandard conditions of the housing that was available to them.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Coles and other members of the African American community picketed the Ritter Dental Equipment Company, White Tower restaurants, and the H.L. Green and Woolworth department stores, seeking greater employment opportunities for blacks and more equitable treatment for black customers.

In the 1950s, many of Rochester’s newest African American citizens came to the city by way of migrant worker camps in nearby rural communities. Coles, along with some other like-minded individuals, set out to investigate the housing and working conditions in the camps, although their inquiries were often rebuffed.

Coles also attained another level of prominence as an announcer and disc jockey for local radio stations, WSAY (AM 1370) and WVET (AM 1280). Through his programs, he was able to promote black musicians by playing spirituals, gospel songs, folk songs, and jazz. His “Highlights of Negro History,” show helped impart a broader knowledge of black history than was then available through the mass media of his day. On “Rochester Community Forum,” Coles discussed current affairs, such as the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (which outlawed racial segregation in schools).


Howard W. Coles as host of “The King Coles Show” (1956)
From the Howard W. Coles Collection,
Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester, New York.

As if that wasn’t enough, Coles served as a president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was one of the co-founders of F.I.G.H.T. (Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today), helped establish the anti-poverty agency Action for a Better Community, and served on the board of the Rochester Housing Commission and other community boards.

During the 1950s, Coles ran for political office several times, always unsuccessfully. When asked why he did so, he said, “I felt I could plant the seeds of an idea that these sorts of things weren’t unattainable, even to blacks.” Several decades later, Rochester’s first African American mayor, William A. Johnson, noted in Coles’ eulogy that he was “a trailblazer who set the tone for those who came along in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Howard Wilson Coles died on December 10th, 1996. He was 93 years old. Today his mortal remains lie in the Wheatland Baptist Cemetery in Wheatland, New York.

For Further Information:
Gary Craig, “Black Editor was a Beacon,” Democrat and Chronicle, December 17, 1996, p. 1B.

Gary Craig, “Coles Called ‘Piece of History,’” Times Union, December 17, 1996, p. 1B.

“Editor’s Father Passes,” The Voice, June 21, 1937, p. 1.

“Editor’s Mother Passes,” The Voice, January 30, 1939, p. 1.

Kevin Bryant Hicks and Jon Hand, “Pioneer Black Editor Howard Coles Dies,” Democrat and Chronicle, December 11 1996, p. 1B.

Howard W. Coles Collection, Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester, N.Y.

“Rail at Lincoln Meeting: Will Be Displayed at Mount Olivet Church This Evening,” Democrat and Chronicle, February 10, 1916, p. 17.

Ruth Scott, “Voice of Righteousness: ‘Storyteller’ Helped Turn Page to Civil Rights,” Democrat and Chronicle, December 19, 1996, p. 19A.

“A Sprawling Collection of Howard Coles Papers Goes to RMSC,” Democrat and Chronicle, August 3, 1999, p. 1C.

Published in: on August 19, 2019 at 10:00 am  Comments (3)  

The Torchbearer: Howard W. Coles (November 12, 1903-December 10, 1996), Part 1

The passing of someone larger than life often creates an existential crisis.  Who should bear the torch and carry on their work and legacy? Such concerns arose following the death of Frederick Douglass. His was such a dominant influence, not only nationally but also locally, that for two generations thereafter there was not one person who singularly served the same role for Rochester’s black community.

That was to change in 1934 with the founding of The Frederick Douglass Voice by editor, publisher, and historian, Howard Wilson Coles (November 12, 1903-December 10, 1996). As his newspaper’s title suggests, Coles endeavored to revive the legacy of Douglass; not only to remind younger people of Douglass’ importance, but also to carry his mission forward to address the issues and challenges present in Coles’ own time.


Howard Wilson Coles (1903-1996).
From the Howard W. Coles Collection,
Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester, New York.

Given Coles’ humble origins, it was not immediately evident that he would fill that role for the Rochester community. He was born in Belcoda, a hamlet in the town of Wheatland, New York, to Charles Bruce Coles (August 21, 1862-June 6, 1937) and his second wife, Grace Greene Thomas (1869?-January 18, 1939). Charles worked as a laborer for the Lycoming Gypsum Company, having settled in Monroe County after following the footsteps of his father, Clayton.

Clayton A. Coles (July 1838-July 11, 1926) was Howard’s paternal grandfather and arguably the greatest influence on his life apart from his parents. At the time of the Civil War, Clayton was enslaved as a body servant of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Escaping from Jackson’s service, Clayton later went to fight for the Union.

Coles_Clayton A._DandC_Apr_18__1948_

Coles’ Grandfather, Clayton A. Coles (ca. 1926). From:
Democrat and Chronicle, April 18, 1948.

Living in Culpeper, Virginia after the war, he heard from African Americans who had moved north of the opportunities available in the town of Wheatland, NY. In 1888, Clayton settled in Monroe County.

In addition to his work as a laborer, Clayton was a preacher. Soon after moving north, he began conducting services in his home. He then built the Belcoda Baptist Church, which opened in 1891. After Howard Coles’ parents joined Clayton in Monroe County, they became active in the church as well.

Clayton’s spirituality had a formative influence on his grandson Howard, as did his interest in history. After moving to Rochester, Clayton was an active member of the Booker T. Washington Library Society. During a Society meeting focused on Abraham Lincoln, Clayton contributed a circa 1803 rail to serve as an example of Lincoln’s youthful labors. Howard inherited his grandfather’s passion for the past, evinced by his later newspaper articles and his history of African Americans in Western New York, The Cradle of Freedom (1941).

Howard’s father Charles also helped shape his son’s future by ensuring that he received a more extensive education than had previous members of the Coles family. Howard attended high school in Scottsville, NY with the sons and daughters of local white residents, but he became bored and dropped out at age 15. (He later regretted the decision, and returned to evening classes at East High School, earning his diploma in June 1947. He would go on to study sociology at the University of Rochester.)

As a high school dropout, none but the most menial jobs were immediately available to Coles. He worked a series of jobs, becoming a bootblack, an usher, a waiter, a messenger, a peddler of The Chicago Defender newspaper, a property manager, a court attendant, an insurance broker, and a real estate agent. But it was his roles as writer, editor, and publisher of The Frederick Douglass Voice that brought him community-wide influence with both the black and white citizens of Rochester.

More will be heard about the extent of that influence in the next installment…

-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:
Gary Craig, “Black Editor was a Beacon,” Democrat and Chronicle, December 17, 1996, p. 1B.

Gary Craig, “Coles Called ‘Piece of History,’” Times Union, December 17, 1996, p. 1B.

“Editor’s Father Passes,” The Voice, June 21, 1937, p. 1.

“Editor’s Mother Passes,” The Voice, January 30, 1939, p. 1.

Kevin Bryant Hicks and Jon Hand, “Pioneer Black Editor Howard Coles Dies,” Democrat and Chronicle, December 11 1996, p. 1B.

Howard W. Coles Collection, Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester, N.Y.

“Rail at Lincoln Meeting: Will Be Displayed at Mount Olivet Church This Evening,” Democrat and Chronicle, February 10, 1916, p. 17.

Ruth Scott, “Voice of Righteousness: ‘Storyteller’ Helped Turn Page to Civil Rights,” Democrat and Chronicle, December 19, 1996, p. 19A.

“A Sprawling Collection of Howard Coles Papers Goes to RMSC,” Democrat and Chronicle, August 3, 1999, p. 1C.


Published in: on August 6, 2019 at 12:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Everyday People- A New Exhibit in Local History!

In the spring of 2018, library patrons Karen Dinkle Bunton and Jerry Bunton, along with their friend Lisa Kleman, approached the library with a massive collection representing 150 years of their family’s history.

The treasure trove of photographs, documents, and ephemera covers five generations of the Dinkles, an African American family that has lived in the Rochester area since the late nineteenth century. The materials proved especially interesting to the Local History & Genealogy Division because they document the lives of African Americans, a population that is underrepresented in our special collections.

After carefully culling through the wealth of items that Karen and Jerry generously provided, the staff of the Local History division developed a new exhibit to showcase the family’s fascinating story: Everyday People: the Dinkle Family and Rochester’s African American Past.

dinkle_exhibit poster

Exhibit poster designed by Corrine Clar.

The exhibit explores the city’s black heritage through the eyes of the Dinkles, an ordinary local family whose lives have at times intersected with larger historical events and sociopolitical movements.

The Dinkles, who came to the Rochester area in the 1870s from Virginia, were among the thousands of southern families that moved north seeking improved living conditions and employment opportunities in the wake of the Civil War. Like many African American migrants to Rochester, the Dinkles eventually settled in the Third Ward (now Corn Hill), which had been home to a black community since the early nineteenth century.

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Circa 1875 map of the historic Third Ward neighborhood. From: City of Rochester Plat map, 1875.

While African Americans initially chose to live in the area given the presence of the A.M.E. Zion Church on Favor Street, in the twentieth century, families such as the Dinkles often found themselves in the Third and Seventh Wards because discriminatory practices restricted their access to other residential areas.

The family nevertheless persevered in the face of such challenges.

Jonathan T. Dinkle, a star athlete in his youth, established the city’s first black-owned taxi business on Clarissa Street in the 1940s.


Jonathan T. Dinkle in the 1930s. Courtesy of Karen and Jerry Bunton.

His son Robert Dinkle Sr. also served his Third Ward community by becoming a Scoutmaster, spending 15 years leading Troop 255, the unit affiliated with Mt. Olivet Baptist Church.

dinkle_troop 255

Troop 255 Badge. Robert Dinkle Sr.’s two sons, Robert Jr. and Rodney, were members of the troop. Courtesy of Karen and Jerry Bunton.

Robert Dinkle Sr. also served his country in addition to his community. He joined the (segregated) armed forces during the Second World War and defended the freedoms of his country abroad even as African Americans were denied many of these same freedoms at home.


Robert Dinkle Sr. with his mother Aldean circa 1945. Courtesy of Karen and Jerry Bunton.

Some members of Karen Dinkle Bunton’s family actively worked towards improving such racial inequities at the local level.  Karen’s maternal aunt, Doris Price, was heavily involved in the civil rights movement. She co-founded the Rochester branch of the Black Panthers and helped organize Malcolm X’s visit to the city in 1965.

dinkle_price and malcolm_DC__May_12__2018_

L to R: Doris Price, Rev. Franklin D.R. Florence, Malcolm X, Constance Mitchell in February 1965. From: Democrat & Chronicle, May 12, 2018.

Following Martin Luther King’s assassination, Doris Price’s other activist group, Your Neighbors, put together a silent protest march. Karen Dinkle Bunton’s mother, Muriel Dinkle, and other Third Ward residents led the procession.

Despite these connections to major historical moments and movements, the Dinkles have remained, according to Karen Dinkle Bunton, “just an ordinary family that moves along.” Because of this, the items in their collection help give insight into what everyday life has been like for African Americans in Rochester over the past 150 years.

We invite you to come join us in the Local History & Genealogy Division to delve into the city’s African American roots as seen through the lens of the Dinkle family.

Everyday People: the Dinkle Family and Rochester’s African American Past, will be on display on the second floor of the Rundel Library from August 5, 2019 into 2020.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on July 30, 2019 at 4:44 pm  Comments (3)  

What’s New in Local History and Genealogy? (LHGD Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1)

LHGD1_newsletterWe are beginning a new newsletter blog series that will give readers insight into what the Local History & Genealogy Division is all about, placing a special focus on our physical collections. These newsletters will highlight some of our most interesting newly received books and other unique items.

A disclaimer–the word “new” is something of a misnomer in our division because the majority of our books, and nearly all of our other items, are gifted to us, not purchased, and about 75% are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Local History nevertheless always appreciates “like-new” gifts.


Did you know that William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody once lived in Rochester and that three of his children are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery?  This local connection allows us to add a truly beautiful book, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, An American Legend by R. L. Wilson and Greg Martin, to our collection.

LHGD1_buffalo cover

What makes this oversize book outstanding is its exquisite color printing of posters and memorabilia from Cody’s Wild West Show as well as many original photographs taken during the late 1800s.  Most unique is the inclusion of the Michael Del Castello Collection of the American West, which features beautifully photographed museum displays of Western artifacts—from rifles and pistols to period leather goods such as saddles, boots, and gloves.

LHGD1_buffalo interior

Some of the beautiful images included in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West-An American Legend.

This book perfectly illustrates Cody’s genius for showmanship and the Old West at its most glamorous.

LHGD1_passenger list

The 44th Supplement to the original Passenger and Immigration Lists Index.

For genealogists, the Division subscribes to the Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, a guide to published records of immigrants who came to the New World between the sixteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries. The 2019 Supplement assembles in alphabetical format 100,000 additional immigrants from Russia and Italy. It is the 44th supplement to the “base” edition published in 1981, increasing coverage to over 5 million individuals. There is still a long way to go, however – a total of 35 million immigrants came to America by 1950!

Two copies of the Rochester 2034 Comprehensive Plan, Draft (2019) were delivered to us from the City of Rochester in May. Rochester will mark its 200th anniversary in 2034. This 15-year plan outlines “who we want to become as a community… and how we can achieve that vision.” Feedback is requested online and at meetings held throughout the City.

The natural beauty of New York State and the ‘wonderfulness’ of our location is celebrated in Waterfalls and Gorges of the Finger Lakes, written by Derek Doeffinger and published by McBooks Press of Ithaca, NY. The local author, who wrote how-to books for Kodak, succeeds in capturing the “feel” of each location from the sounds of falling water to the sensation of water drops and mist, and from the smell of the earth to the warmth or chill of the day.  The work includes one of the best photographs of Rochester’s Lower Falls as well as a map giving the location of 31 Finger Lakes-area falls, complete with hiking and swimming information.

LHGD1_lower falls

An exceptional view of the Lower Falls. From: Derek Doeffinger-Waterfalls and Gorges of the Finger Lakes.

Would you like to read a thorough biography of Frederick Douglass in one sitting?  Multi-award winning author Tonya Bolden has written a very readable short book, highlighted with Douglass photographs, Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, a Monumental American Man.

LHGD1_facing fred cover

Bolden’s brief, but detailed work on Frederick Douglass.

The work is succinct, but captures each era of the abolitionist’s life, as do the book’s carefully chosen photographs.  Featured among these images are photos from the author’s personal visit to Douglass’ last home at Cedar Hill in Washington D.C.

A Great Surprise          LHGD1_wow graphic

A few weeks ago, our division received a copy of the first issue of the Rochester Daily Advertiser from 1826 with a letter explaining that the sender had found it among his grandfather’s possessions. What is especially wonderful about this rare gift is its condition.  It is pristine, folded only once, with no torn edges or yellowing.


The pristine copy of the October 25, 1826 issue of the Rochester Daily Advertiser.

Filling the Gaps   LHGD1_puzzle graphic

The Local History and Genealogy Division houses many serial collections, which are collections of books that are usually published yearly, such as corporate, government, and non-profit annual reports as well as school yearbooks.


Some of the many yearbooks included in the Local History & Genealogy Division’s collection.

We accept donations of all regional yearbooks, ranging from elementary schools to colleges. It doesn’t matter if their pages are untouched or covered with scribbles and signatures. Programs or loose materials included in the books are also of interest.

Although we collect multiple copies of each year, we still do not have a complete run of yearbooks for every school. In each newsletter, we will inform readers of some of the gaps in our yearbook collection:

John Marshall High School, John Quill, missing 1978, 1982, 1984–1989

Monroe High School, Monrolog, missing 1931, 1970–1973, 1975, 1979, 1985-1987

Don’t throw out that book or company newsletter before you give us a call!  The items you find in your grandparents’ attic or garage, and the ledgers or newsletters your company has kept in storage for 50+ years may be just what we are looking for.

-Hope Christansen

Published in: on July 18, 2019 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  

Chasin’ the Past Pt. 4- Lost Jazz Clubs of Rochester

As the Rochester International Jazz Festival draws to a close, so too does our blog series on the lost jazz clubs of Rochester. The final installment explores two venues from the city’s historic Corn Hill neighborhood…

THE PYTHODD (1953-1973)

The Pythodd–named after two fraternal organizations, Knights of Pythias and Odd Fellows–is probably Rochester’s best remembered jazz club.

The humble, three-story building stood at 159 Troup Street on the corner of Clarissa Street, which had long been the heart of Corn Hill’s African American community.

lost jazz_pythodd map_1935

The Pythodd at 159 Troup Street. From: City of Rochester Plat Map 1935.

Originally the dual headquarters of the Knights of Pythias and Odd Fellows, the private club began welcoming both local and touring jazz artists in 1953.

Gap and Chuck Mangione, who played at the club four nights a week in the early 1960s, developed their chops at the storied venue as did other up-and-comers like bassist Ron Carter, drummer Roy McCurdy, and tenor saxman Pee Wee Ellis.

As they honed their style in their own groups, aspiring Rochester musicians at the Pythodd were also regularly given the opportunity to play with some of the finest jazz artists in the country, including Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, and George Benson.

During his recent appearance at the Eastman Theatre, George Benson fondly recalled playing at the Pythodd and encountering a young, talented drummer named Steve Gadd.

lostjazz-pythodd ad-dc__Jul_26__1965_

From: Democrat & Chronicle, July 26, 1965.

The club’s reputation for phenomenal live music led Stevie Wonder to drop by after a performance at the War Memorial.

According to Stanley Thomas Jr., whose parents bought the club in 1968: “I was on the door at the time and he said, ‘I’m Stevie Wonder; do I have to pay?’ I told him if he was Stevie Wonder, he would have to show me and get up on the bandstand and play something…Well, Stevie went up there and played every instrument in the band. It seemed that within a half hour everybody in town knew about it, and they were lined up outside to get in.”

The patrons that lined up to see shows at the Pythodd represented a fairly diverse group. Thomas informed the Democrat & Chronicle in 1970: “We get ‘em all kinds in here. College level on up. There’s judges come in with their parties. City councilmen we see here once, twice a week, both political parties, doesn’t matter…We’ve got about a 60 per cent black and 40 per cent white place here.”

lostjazz_stanley thomas jr_DC_Mar_31__1989_ (1)

Stanley Thomas Jr., who ran the Pythodd from 1968-1973. His parents Stanley Sr. and Dolores Thomas owned the venue. From: Democrat & Chronicle, March 31, 1989.

An erstwhile patron explained in 1972, “At the Pythodd Room you can be seated with a migratory farmer on one side of you and a physician on the other, because we’re all seeking the same thing, good music.”

Will Moyle, a longtime radio DJ, recalled in 1983, “What I enjoyed so much about this place…it was the one place where people from all walks in our community could go.”

Sadly, the utopic music space did not last. Slated for demolition as part of the Third Ward Urban Renewal project, the Pythodd shut its doors on September 30, 1973. The hallowed hall was demolished along with 1,400 housing units and dozens of black-owned businesses in Corn Hill. But, unlike many other razed structures in the historic neighborhood, nothing ever went up in the Pythodd’s place.

A parking lot now marks the site where Rochesterians from all walks of life were once drawn together by a common passion.


lost jazz_pythodd _now

The parking lot beside the Flying Squirrel Community Space marks the former site of the Pythodd. From: Googlemaps, 2019.

SHEP’S PARADISE (1968-2002)

A couple doors down from the Pythodd stood another venerable African American institution, Shep’s Paradise.

Lost Jazz_Sheps__Feb_19__2017_

The march on Clarissa Street following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968. From: Democrat & Chronicle, February 17, 2017.

Located at 293 Clarissa Street (originally the site of Dan’s Tavern), Shep’s Paradise was opened in 1968 by Ruther “Shep” Shepard, a Florida-born graduate of the Rochester Business School.

For the first two decades of its existence, the club’s musical entertainment was provided by the soul, blues and jazz discs spinning in Shep’s jukebox.

Shepard became inspired to upgrade his entertainment offerings after a successful “Pythodd Reunion” jazz concert was held downtown in 1990. He informed the D&C, “After that happened, then we started thinking, ‘well let’s do some jazz regularly on Clarissa Street and try to start a new thing.’”

Beginning in 1991, under the direction of talent coordinator Carol Evans, the two-level venue began hosting performances four nights a week. The free shows steadily drew an audience of local jazz fans and Eastman students.


From: Democrat & Chronicle, July 8, 1992.

Though the club showcased well-established local artists such as drummer Eddie Israel, it was also known for taking chances on young talent.

As a regular patron informed the D&C in 2002, “They’ll book a group that’s been together for years and has a reputation, and they’ll book a group that’s fresh, brand new.”


Ruther “Shep” Shepard ca. the 1980s. From: Democrat & Chronicle, February 17, 2017.

Shep’s jazz offerings were well received, but over the course of the 1990s the venue’s namesake owner began to struggle with back taxes. The City purchased the building from Shepard in 1998, in the hopes that he would one day buy it back, but he closed the club for good in 2002.

A series of establishments, including Clarissa’s and the Clarissa Room, have occupied the building since then.

lost jazz_sheps_now

The former home of Shep’s Paradise. From: Googlemaps 2019.

-Emily Morry


Published in: on June 28, 2019 at 5:44 pm  Comments (1)  

Chasin’ the Past Pt. 3-Lost Jazz Clubs of Rochester

SQUEEZER’S (1946-1955) and BAND BOX (1955-1959)

If you’ve attended the Rochester International Jazz Festival in the last few years, you are probably familiar with the name Squeezer’s. One of the festival’s venues has donned the moniker since 2014, but the original Squeezer’s dates back to the 1950s.


Squeezer’s Musical Bar ca. 1950s. From: Photo provided by Joseph Strazzeri Jr. to Democrat & Chronicle, June 22, 2014.

Joe “Squeezer” Strazzeri, a classically trained pianist, opened his eponymous venue at 420 State Street in 1950.

lost jazz_420 state map_then

Squeezer’s stood at 420 State Street, north of Brown Street. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1935.

The compact club steadily drew a loyal clientele. Kodak employees came from across the street for lunches and dinners prepared by Joe’s wife Phyllis, while jazz aficionados packed the room in the evenings for nightly jam sessions.

One of the jam session’s early fixtures was organ and piano virtuoso, Doug Duke. Buenos Aires-born and Rochester-raised, Duke led Squeezer’s house band for a time and was initially the only paid musician in the joint.


From: Democrat & Chronicle, April 11, 1956.

Duke took pleasure in playing with both local beboppers and touring members of more commercial-sounding groups, who often dropped by Squeezer’s after their concerts.

“It’s relaxing for these guys to play loose, after playing all night with music [sheets] in front of them,” Duke informed the Democrat & Chronicle in 1950, “They like to come here after work for a big fat ball and knock themselves out. It’s a great thing for a guy who’s been playing with a Micky [corny] band to come here and pick up a little trash.”

The club witnessed its share of non-Micky jazzmen as well. Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, and Duke Ellington all reportedly graced the Squeezer’s stage before it ended its run in 1955.

The building carried on as a jazz club—called the Band Box—and continued to host talented artists including Terry Gibbs (vibraphone) and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers.


From: Democrat & Chronicle, March 16, 1955.

On Easter Sunday 1956, a particularly stellar quintet comprising Clifford Brown (trumpet), Max Roach (drums), Sonny Rollins (sax), Richie Powell (piano), and George Morrow (bass), wowed an audience of about 12 people. Among the lucky dozen were Gap and Chuck Mangione. Gap later recalled feeling immensely grateful for having been able to see the show as Brown and Powell died in a car crash less than three months after the performance.

The Band Box suffered a tragedy of its own three years later. In the early morning hours of March 10, 1959, a set of fires coursed through the building, putting an end to the once storied jazz venue.

lost jazz2_squeezers_now

The former site of Squeezer’s/Band Box on State Street. From: Googlemaps, 2019.

The next post in this series will explore two seminal jazz clubs of the Corn Hill neighborhood…

-Emily Morry

Published in: on June 27, 2019 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Chasin’ the Past Pt. 2- Lost Jazz Clubs of Rochester

Ridge Crest Inn (1953-1963)

One of the most significant jazz venues in Rochester’s history was actually located in an old farmhouse in Irondequoit.

lost jazz_1982 ridge map_then

The Ridge Crest Inn at 1982 E. Ridge Road in Irondequoit. From: Plat Book including towns of Irondequoit and Brighton, Monroe Co., New York (1959).

Opened in 1953 by Wesley Morey, a longtime bank employee, and his wife, Jane, the Ridge Crest Inn only accommodated about 125 people, but hosted some of the biggest names in jazz that ever performed in Rochester.


From: Democrat & Chronicle, March 1, 1959.

The Moreys helped establish Rochester as a tour stop for major acts traveling between New York and Chicago. Their repute extended to jazz circles in those same cities.

According to local journalist, Phil Ungerer, Jane Morey was known by booking agents in New York City as the “headmistress of the East side school of the cool sound,” and “the biggest contractor for jazz talent in this area.”


From: Democrat & Chronicle, March 13, 1956.

Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and The Modern Jazz Quartet were just some of the renowned artists that drew local jazz fans to the Ridge Crest on a weekly basis.

One such local jazz fan was budding drummer Steve Gadd, whose parents took him to the club’s Sunday matinees when he was still in grade school. There, Gadd observed the masterwork of drummer Gene Krupa, and sat in with Dizzy Gillespie when he was only 11 years old.


From: Democrat & Chronicle, May 29, 1956.

Chuck and Gap Mangione were also regular attendees of the matinee shows, and frequently invited touring musicians to dine in their family home. “The Ridge Crest Inn…had the greatest array of really spectacular jazz,” Gap Mangione fondly recalled to the D&C in 2002, “I saw Oscar Peterson there on a regular basis. And Billie Holiday, Miles, Dizzy.”


From: Democrat & Chronicle, April 8, 1956.

The club’s co-owner, Wesley Morey, passed away in 1958, after which Jane kept the business going until 1963. The famed farmhouse venue was torn down in the mid-1960s and replaced with a Lincoln Trust Co. bank in 1967.

lost jazz_1982 ridge map_now

The stretch of East Ridge Road where the Ridge Crest Inn once stood. From: Googlemaps, 2019.

Today, a Chase bank branch graces the site where jazz legends once made history.

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The bank which now stands on the former club site. From: Googlemaps, 2019.

Hi-Land Inn (1949-1976)

While the Ridge Crest Inn is still remembered and revered by many locals today, the Moreys also ran a lesser-known venue in the Swillburg neighborhood called the Hi-Land Inn.

lost jazz_938 clinton map_now

HI-Land Inn stood at 938 Clinton Avenue South, kitty-corner from the Cinema Theatre. From: City of Rochester Map, 2019.

The couple purchased the club at the corner of Clinton Avenue South and Goodman Street in 1949, and featured some of the same acts that would later grace the stage of the Ridge Crest.

The Hi-Land boasted performances by Zutty Singleton—billed as “the greatest Drummer of all time”—trumpeter Hot Lips Page, and “Mr. Saxophone,” Sonny Stitt.


From: Democrat & Chronicle, December 21, 1952.

It also hosted weekly “Blue Sunday” sessions featuring a stellar house band comprised of local talents Roy Dunlop (piano), Russ Musserl (sax), Chuck Cameron (drums), Bill Traikoff (trumpet), and Jamaica Jive (bass).


From: Democrat & Chronicle, April 19, 1953.

In the late 1950s, the Moreys focused their booking efforts on the Ridge Crest Inn, and the Hi-Land Inn shifted back to a restaurant and bar.

Though the establishment’s jazz identity faded in the Fifties, it retained the Hi-Land Inn moniker until 1976, after which it became the Friends & Players Pub, a tavern featuring shows by local rock groups. Today, the former music hub is home to The Angry Goat Pub.


The Hi-Land Inn building on the right circa 1950. From: the Collection of the Local History & Genealogy Division.

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The former Hi-Land Inn today. From: Googlemaps, 2019.

The next blog post in this series will revisit the glory days of Squeezer’s Musical Bar and the Band Box.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on June 25, 2019 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Chasin’ The Past-Lost Jazz Clubs of Rochester, Pt. 1

The Rochester International Jazz Festival, which began Friday, has entertained thousands of local music fans each June since 2002, but the city’s jazz roots extend back much further. This blog series will take a look at some of the bygone jazz venues that once dotted Rochester’s landscape.

COTTON CLUB (1943-1960)

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The Cotton Club at 222 Joseph Avenue circa the 1950s. From: the Collection of the Local History & Genealogy Division.

Opened in 1943 by Louis Lipsitz, the Cotton Club stood at the northeast corner of Joseph Avenue and Kelly Street in the 7th Ward, a multiethnic neighbourhood home to a vibrant African American community.

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The intersection of Joseph Avenue and Kelly Street in the 7th Ward. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1935.

Named after the legendary New York City venue where former Rochester resident Cab Calloway  made his mark, the Cotton Club became, according to Chuck Mangione, “the focus of ‘Little Harlem’ here in Rochester.”

Offering live entertainment seven nights a week, the venue drew big R&B acts like jump blues shouters Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Bullmoose Jackson, as well as jazz musicians like trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and sax player Roland Kirk. The club also showcased local talent such as popular blues singer, Maria Wells.

Though the venue’s location at the heart of “Little Harlem” initially proved advantageous, the site later formed the center of the Baden-Ormond clearance area. The Cotton Club was forced to shut its doors in 1960, and, like 441 other land parcels in the 7th Ward, was demolished in the name of urban renewal.

Chatham Gardens, a housing complex designed to accommodate some of the ‘renewed’ neighborhood’s displaced denizens, opened at the former club site in 1962.

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The site of the Cotton Club in 2019. From: Morry.

OTMEN’S (1906; 1948-1965)

One of the lesser known jazz haunts in Rochester’s history is Otmen’s Restaurant at 47 Front Street.

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Otmen’s stood on the west side of Front Street, just north of Corinthian Street. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1935.

Originally the site of the Ottman Brothers sausage shop—which opened in 1906—Otmen’s transitioned into a restaurant and then a jazz club in the late 1940s, when two local  musicians, Sammy Proff (trumpet) and Andy Laplaca (drums), took over management of the establishment.

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Front Street in the 1920s. 45-47 Front Street stood next to the Genesee Provision Co. From: the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center.

A circa 1948 advertisement noting the restaurant’s rebranding announced, “A touch of Greenwich Village comes to Front Street!” The ad targeted “musicians, entertainers [and] hep-cats,” but conceded: “squares invited.”

For a time, Otmen’s served as the home base of Herbie Brock, a blind pianist, who, in his day, was known as the Art Tatum of Rochester. A skilled improviser, he informed the Democrat & Chronicle in 1954, “Most of the time I take a familiar tune and use a few lines so the customers can recognize it. Then I paint it in different moods, never the same way twice. Some nights it’s pretty good. Other nights, of course…”

Brock left Rochester for the Miami jazz scene in the 1950s. That decade, Otmen’s Front Street neighborhood, then a mix of meat markets, taverns, pawn shops and peddlers, continued along a steady decline. In 1965, the entire street was slated for demolition as part of an urban renewal initiative, and the majority of the once bustling avenue was replaced with the Genesee Crossroads Park (also known as Charles Carroll Park).

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First Federal Plaza and Charles Carroll Park stand where Front Street once ran. From: City of Rochester Map, 2019.


The current (approximate) site of Otmen’s. From: Morry.

The next blog post will explore more of Rochester’s lost jazz relics…

-Emily Morry

Published in: on June 21, 2019 at 6:55 pm  Comments (1)  

Congressional Prisoner of the Confederacy: Alfred Ely (1815-1892)

Have you ever been so angry with a politician that you wanted them sent to prison? That happened to the second civilian from Western New York captured during the Civil War.

Alfred Ely (February 15, 1815-May 18, 1892) was the eighth of ten children born to Charles Ely (April 19, 1772- December 19, 1854) and Elizabeth Hyde (September 2, 1778-March 10, 1858) in Lyme, Connecticut. His father was a merchant in Hartford, Connecticut who later returned to farm the ancestral homestead in Lyme.


Congressional Representative Alfred Ely (1815-1892)
From: Frontispiece of Journal of Alfred Ely, 1862.

In 1835, Alfred relocated to Rochester. He took to studying law in the offices of Smith and Rochester (one of whose partners was a son of city founder Nathaniel Rochester). Alfred was admitted to the bar in 1841, and before the Civil War his practice primarily served local milling interests.

It was through his milling contacts that he met and married Caroline Lydia Field (1817?-July 14, 1912), daughter of mill owner (and future mayor) Joseph Field. With Caroline, Alfred had four children, but none of them survived him.

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Alfred Ely’s former home (since demolished) on the southeast corner of Troup Street and Plymouth Avenue South. From: Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

In 1858, Alfred became the Republican candidate for Congress. He would serve but two terms (1859-1863), the period covering the first two years of the Civil War. During his first term he served on the Committee on Claims; in his second, he served as Chair of the Committee on Invalid Pensions.  He was active in raising companies of men to fight in the war, and it was his interest in military preparedness that led him to witness the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861.

In the early stages of the battle it appeared the Federal troops might win, but a late rally by Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson led to a rout of Union soldiers and curious civilian onlookers alike. Trailing behind the fleeing soldiers, Ely was captured and brought before a Confederate colonel.

The officer asked the civilian to identify himself, to which he replied, “I am the Honorable Alfred Ely, Representative in Congress from New York.” The officer replied, “You white-livered Yankee. You’re just the cuss I have been looking for!”

The Confederates were pleased to have captured a member of the “Black Republicans” (party members favoring the abolition of slavery and the provision of civil rights for African Americans) whom they most resented. Ely was placed in a converted tobacco warehouse in Richmond, Virginia to await developments.

Ely’s incarceration would last more than five months, in part because of the uncertainty surrounding the fate of Union-held Confederate prisoners from the privateers Savannah and Jefferson Davis.  Their treatment —be it incarceration or execution—would in turn dictate the destiny of captured Union soldiers. While awaiting news of their fate, Ely remained in the custody of the Confederates.

Ely was initially detained in a converted tobacco factory, but was later moved to the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond, which he shared with Union officers and enlisted men, though his imprisonment was significantly more comfortable than theirs. Ely had quarters to himself and was fed three times a day. He was permitted to receive daily newspapers and many visitors, some of whom brought food, flowers, and other comforts.

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Libby Prison circa 1863
From: Library of Congress.


He did not luxuriate in these “comforts,” however. With the permission of General John Winder, he was allowed to visit prisoners in his facility and in nearby hospitals and did what he could to alleviate their sufferings. Through appeals to Congress, he informed them of prison conditions and arranged for the release of many of the soldiers.

He also founded what was humorously called the Richmond Prison Association, a group designed to relieve tedium for his fellow prisoners. He set up debates, card games, singalongs, and other activities to make life easier for the incarcerated.

Probably the scariest moment for Ely came on November 9th, 1861, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War Judah Benjamin compelled him to draw lots to select Federal officers to be executed should Union authorities execute the officers and crew of the aforementioned Confederate privateers. Fourteen high ranking officers were selected; six were relocated to prisons in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, while the remainder were transferred to the Henrico County Jail to await word. The crisis was resolved in February 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln revoked the death sentences of the privateers’ crews.

As for Ely, on Christmas Day 1861, he was exchanged for Charles James Faulkner, the former U.S. Minister to France, who had been held at Fort Warren in Boston. Following his release, Ely returned to Rochester and resumed his legal practice, where he did extensive work for the New York Central Railroad. He also served as President of the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank. He died on May 18, 1892, at age 77, after being in declining health for the previous two years. His mortal remains reside in the Ely mausoleum in Mount Hope Cemetery.


Ely Mausoleum, Mount Hope Cemetery. From:


-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

Elizabeth R. Varon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Joseph W. Barnes, “Rochester’s Congressmen, Part I, 1789-1869,” Rochester History, 41, no. 3 (July 1979), 18-20.

Journal of Alfred Ely, A Prisoner of War in Richmond, edited by Charles Lanmen (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1862).

“Hon. Alfred Ely,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 19, 1892, p. 8, col.5.

Published in: on June 18, 2019 at 4:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Not for the Price of the Confederacy: The Story of Jennie Curtis

Even those with a cursory knowledge of the Civil War are aware that soldiers were taken as prisoners of war during the conflict. But did you know that civilians were also taken prisoners? This blog post and one to follow will detail the experiences of two such western New Yorkers.

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Actor Emma Tower portrays Jennie Curtis at Mount Albion Cemetery ghost walk
(Photo by Tom Rivers, Orleans Hub
Used with permission)

The first civilian in question was Jane Curtis (June 6, 1838-October 23, 1921).  “Jennie,” as she was known, was the eldest of five children born to businessman Hiram Curtis (1805?- May 17, 1870) and his wife, Mary Dodge (February 22, 1821-February 6, 1898). Hiram operated a foundry in Albion, NY that made agricultural implements, including mowers and reapers. He was a staunch Union man, abolitionist, and supporter of the Underground Railroad.

Jennie’s involvement with the Civil War was accidental. She was married at the age of 16 (ca. 1854) to Orville D. Hopkins and with him had two children, but he died by 1860. Shortly after the Battle of Fairfax Court House (July 1, 1861), Mr. and Mrs. Curtis received a note that their son George, a soldier with the 13th New York Volunteer Infantry, was in a hospital in Washington, D.C. Jennie set out to see her brother.

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Veterans of the 13th New York Volunteer Infantry (1913). From: Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, N.Y.

When she arrived in the capital, she learned that the hospitalized Curtis was not her brother but another soldier named Henry Curtis. Continuing to search for her brother, she obtained a pass from Union General Winfield Scott and set out for Camp Union in Falls Church, VA, the headquarters of his regiment.

At Camp Union, she found her brother George alive and well, but his troop was on the move for what later became known the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). Not being able to leave the area, she was welcomed by the family of Joseph Pierce of Arlington, Virginia. The Pierce farm was located next to Camp Union and saw many of the wounded and dying Union soldiers that had fought in Bull Run.

General Irvin McDowell had let the Confederates escape after the battle, which so incensed Jennie that she got into an argument with an officer of his staff. “Why don’t you find out where [the rebels] are?” she asked. He replied that there weren’t any nearby. She bet him she could find some.

She set out on July 27th, 1861, with an escort, Private John Eldridge of the 13th New York. They rode on until they came to a long-neglected toll gate. Eldridge decided not to venture further, but headstrong Jennie rode on. When she stopped to water her horse, she heard soldiers nearby. She returned to the saddle and galloped back and jumped over the toll gate bar, but she and Private Eldridge were surrounded and captured.

A Confederate officer informed her that he had orders to arrest her as a spy, as she had been frequently seen riding within their lines. Jennie retorted that she didn’t acknowledge that they had any lines.

The pass she had received from Winfield Scott would only incriminate her further, so she surreptitiously swallowed it before the soldiers had a chance to search her.  She and Private Eldridge were then taken to the residence of Alfred Morse, where many Confederate officers, including Fitzhugh Lee (Robert E Lee’s nephew) called on her.

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Confederate General Fitzhugh Lee
From: Library of Congress.

Fitzhugh Lee traded barbs with her: “When we take Washington, I’ll take a run up to your New York home and we’ll drink champagne together.” She replied sarcastically, “Before you take Washington, you will have had all the pain you want, and no sham pain either!” She was then sent on to Richmond, VA.

Once there, she was brought before Confederate General John H. Winder, in charge of all Confederate prisons. He said they had sufficient evidence to convict her of espionage. She denied ever being a spy and commented that there was no need to endanger the lives of Union women as spies when there were plenty of Southern men who could be bribed! She was consigned to Libby Prison in Richmond and later transferred to a private home.

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Confederate General John H. Winder.
From: National Park Service.

For three weeks she was held, and she let everyone around her know how she felt about her imprisonment and the Confederate cause. Finally, she wrote to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. He informed her that she would be released the next day, and he would not have her incendiary tongue again in Richmond for the price of the whole Confederacy!

She was sent by train to Norfolk, VA on August 23, 1861, and then made her way home. Her fellow prisoner, Private John Eldridge, served a year in prison before he was exchanged.

jennie pow-grave

Jennie Curtis’ headstone, Mount Albion Cemetery (Albion, New York)
Careful readers will note the date of birth differs from above.
         The date in the second paragraph comes from her death certificate.

Jennie died from a cerebral hemorrhage on October 23, 1921 in Albion, New York. Today, her mortal remains are buried in Mount Albion Cemetery in her hometown.


-Christopher Brennan


For More Information:

“Death Takes Woman Who Was Nurse and Spy in Civil War,” Buffalo Commercial, October 25, 1921, p. 9, cols. 5-6.

Elizabeth R. Varon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

“First Woman Prisoner of War: The Story of Jennie A. Curtis, A Dashing Yankee Girl,” Buffalo Evening News, February 7, 1899, p. 3, cols. 3-5.

“Statement of Mrs. [sic] Curtis,” New York Times, August 14, 1861, p. 1, col. 3.

Village of Albion, New York, Register of Deaths, no. 70 (1921), Jennie Curtis; photocopy, courtesy of Albion Village Clerk.

“A War Incident: Rochester Woman Arrested by the Rebels as a Union Spy,” Rochester  Union and Advertiser (Rochester, New York), August 14, 1897, p. 12, cols. 1-3.

“Woman Who Won Honors in Civil War Dies in Albion,” Buffalo Evening Times, October 26, 1921, p. 11, col. 3.



Published in: on June 11, 2019 at 5:23 pm  Leave a Comment